Inside, a bearded stranger, clad only in rags and unable to speak the local language, uses a combination of hand signals and drawings to tell an incredible, nearly impossible, tale of survival at sea.
He identifies himself as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, and last Thursday, when this incident took place, he said he had been floating with the ocean currents for more than a year, departing Tapachula, Mexico, in late 2012 before landing in the Marshall Islands – halfway between Hawaii and Australia – in 2014.
Originally, he had set out for a daylong fishing excursion, joined in the 23-foot boat by a teenage fisherman. When fierce winds blew them off course, he said, the engine died, leaving them at the mercy of the waves.
Lacking adequate tools or emergency food rations, Alvarenga said the duo was forced to eat whatever animals they could catch: not only fish, but birds and turtles they snared with their bare hands. The teenager was unable to stomach the raw catch without vomiting, and allegedly died of starvation after a few months at sea. The older man said he threw the teen's body overboard and continued his strategy of holding his nose as he forced himself to eat the meat he could catch. To drink, he collected rainwater. When that would run out, he drank his own urine.
Terrified and alone, Alvarenga said he prayed and struggled with suicidal thoughts throughout the ordeal. The currents eventually guided the boat to the Marshall Islands' Ebon Atoll, some 5,000 miles from where it entered the water.
After a brief period of recuperation, Alvarenga was taken to Majuro, the capital of the islands, for more extensive medical care and interviews. While there, government officials began to express doubts about his remarkable tale.
Certain discrepancies, including the date he had originally set off on the voyage, started to appear in Alvarenga's retellings of the story, though Alvarenga admitted his memory had been scarred by so many months alone at sea. Other details were more mysterious: Most survivors of similar ordeals suffer from severe malnourishment, while Alvarenga appeared strangely well-fed. His fishing equipment, which Alvarenga says he used to stay alive, was nowhere to be found.
"If what he is saying is true, he is one of the best survivalists around," U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Thomas Hart Armbruster told NBC News. And though some details may sound fantastic, Marshall Islands officials said nothing in Alvarenga's story was impossible, only improbable.
Erik van Sebille, an Australian oceanographer told the Guardian that the apparent duration of Alvarenga's journey was consistent with the strength of Pacific currents he would have encountered. Besides, Armbruster admitted, "There is no alternate explanation at this point for how he wound up there."
Alvarenga, a native of El Salvador, has said repeatedly that he wants to return to Mexico as soon as possible. His family, who hadn't heard from him since he moved away more than 10 years ago, rejoiced at news he was alive.